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Post by Nara-pyon on Sun Aug 30, 2015 12:12 pm

A Prodigal Return

Location: Haven, Borderlands
Year: 119 of the Fourth Age
Status: Mid-Summer

Summer in the Borderlands, especially in Paradise Valley, was a beautiful and dangerous time. Warm weather and sunshine were as often as not accompanied by humidity, and the area was plagued with violent storms, including the occasional twister. This particular night was a beautiful one. The moon was little more than a silver sliver in the black sky, but there were so many stars that it didn’t matter: there was still plenty of light. It reflected in shining halos on the golden heads of the three elves that were coming over the ring of mountains that encircled the valley.

“There,” the man pointed, indicating a cabin that was nestled halfway down the other side. “That’s where I grew up.”

They paused for a moment, looking down at the scene below. The cabin was on a plateau, far from the edge, and between it and the edge was an open space, a garden which, even from this distance, looked like it was doing quite well, and then trees. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, which made sense: even if it were winter, it would be far too late at night for anyone to be awake.

“You really think they’re going to be happy to be woken up in the middle of the night?” asked one of the women, leaning forward, hands on her knees, catching her breath.

“Well, if it were you coming back to your mother and me,” the man replied, “I wouldn’t mind.”

The other woman laughed softly. “Somehow, though, I don’t think we would ever encounter that situation. Besides, we’re this close now – there’s not much point in stopping here.” She smiled and put one hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Come on. It’s all downhill from here, and then we can have a good night’s rest.”

The young woman sighed and straightened up. “How long?”

Her father looked down the mountainside. “Somewhere between a quarter and half hour,” he murmured. “Shorter if we just get going.” He shifted his bag on his back and started off.

“Come, Ava,” her mother called, following after her husband.

It was a warm night, especially as the wind was blocked from cooling them by the trees that covered the slopes, but when they reached the plateau, only Ava was sweating. Her entire life, her family had lived in the city, and even this trip had not accustomed her to the physical exertion travel required. Her parents however had both grown up in (separate) forests, so this was nothing new for them.

Her father knocked on the door. For several long moments, all was still; and suddenly, behind them, a low voice ordered: “Identify yourselves.”

“Come on,” the man chuckled, turning around to face the voice. “I know it’s been a long time, but surely you recognize your own son, Father.”

There was a brief silence. Then:


Fletcher stepped out of the shadows, and the starlight brought out the surprise etched on his face.

Beregond laughed heartily. “Indeed, Father. We’re back – at least for a visit.”

Both of them laughing, father and son greeted each other with a warm hugs and slaps to the back. Then, still gripping his son’s shoulder, Fletcher turned towards the two women and grinned at them.

“Father,” Beregond smiled proudly, “my wife, Fawn…”

Fawn stepped forward and received a hug of her own.

“… and our firstborn, our daughter, Ava.”

Ava looked a bit hesitant, so it was Fletcher who closed the distance between them to embrace her as well. She stiffened briefly; but after a few seconds she relaxed and put her arms around her grandfather, hugging him in return. It was only then that Fletcher released her again.

“Amara will be so happy,” he murmured with a smile. Beneath the starlight, tears glistened in his eyes. “It’s been so long since we’ve even heard from you.”

Beregond rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “Sorry about that, Father,” he apologized. “It’s awfully hard to find people coming out here to deliver any letters…”

Fletcher waved away the apology. “Never mind that, son. You’re here now. Come, let’s go tell your mother the good news before she starts to worry about how long I’ve been out.”

He was too late, though: he had been gone long enough that his wife had begun to worry, and now she appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a hastily-donned cloak. Unlike her husband, she recognized her son immediately, and she let out a cry of excitement.

“Beregond!” she exclaimed, rushing towards him and throwing her arms around him. “Oh, it’s been so long! I’m so glad you’ve come! So much has happened since you left!”

Beregond chuckled. “So we’ve seen from the mountaintop, Mother,” he grinned. He pressed a kiss to her brow. “Sorry to scare you like this in the middle of the night, we were just too close not to keep going when night fell.”

“Well, let’s not all stay out here,” Amara urged them all. “Come inside, come inside! I can’t promise that we have enough beds but we can make do.” She laughed. “But I don’t want to sleep now, I want to find out all about you and how you’ve been doing! It’s been so very long!”

On their way inside, Beregond introduced his family to his mother, who, like her husband, greeted Fawn and Ava with hugs, and also added a kiss to both cheeks for both of them. While Fletcher set about lighting some candles and starting a fire in the fireplace, Beregond told them what little there was to tell on his part: their only other child was a son, Tanil, who had not accompanied them because he was a soldier in His Majesty’s army and was stationed up north, watching over the dwarfs; their life in Chansond’eau had been one of relative ease, with Beregond working hard, supplying furs for the tanner and meat for the butcher; that Ava, despite her beauty, was still unmarried – though it was not for lack of suitors: she simply hadn’t been interested in any of them; that their journey had been uneventful if slow; and that they hoped to stay at least for a month or so before returning to their home.

“But what’s going on here?” he asked at last, his brow furrowed curiously as he looked at his mother from where he and his wife sat together on the couch. “When I left, there was your house up here, and Nako-thêl’s house, and her parents’ house … and now it almost looks like the city!”

Amara giggled and set down the tray of drinks she’d brought from the kitchen. Warm though it was, she did keep a pitcher of cider in the kitchen so that she wouldn’t have to go to the cellar every time they wanted a drink.

“Well … we had some visitors,” she said simply. She paused while she passed out the drinks and took her seat again. “You remember Donovan and Kara, yes?”

Beregond let his breath out slowly and ran his fingers through his hair. “Vaguely,” he admitted. “The human and the … angel?”

Fawn turned and looked at him questioningly and he explained, “An angel is like a human with wings. They visited us from another world.”

“What do remember about what was going on about that time?” Fletcher asked quietly.

Beregond struggled to remember. “Well … we were attacked by humans … the slavers from whom Daeron had been rescued … that was when most of us were injured, and Terexin was killed.”

“And you left, as soon as you were physically able,” Fletcher finished for his son, nodding. “Yes. It was a hard time for all of us. It hit Ulani and Ulrich the hardest.”

“Mother’s aunt and uncle,” Beregond explained to his wife and daughter, his eyes still on his parents. “So what happened?”

Amara smiled warmly. “Kara convinced Ulani and Ulrich not to dwell on Terexin’s death, but to look forward instead. Not to give in to being alone, but to start over. And then Donovan had the idea of hunting down the slavers, not only for what they had done to us, but for what they had done and were still doing to Serenity, and to stop what had happened to Daeron from ever happening again. It started small, but this is what has grown into. The slavery is ended, I’m sure you must have heard at least that much in Chansond'eau …”

All three visitors nodded. It had been a day of rejoicing when the city had heard that the slavers were no more, and that their children were safe. Everyone who had been alive that day remembered it – even those who had been very young at the time: all but the very youngest.

“And since then,” Amara finished with a smile, “this place has become simply a home. I admit, it isn’t nearly as quiet as it used to be, but your father and I are still left more or less alone, so we don’t mind. And Ulrich and Ulani are happier now than I have ever seen them before.”

Beregond glanced towards the window again. The cabin was so far from the edge of the plateau that there was no way he could see down the mountainside, but that was where his thoughts were at the moment, and it helped him to focus his thoughts to look in that direction.

“It seems so hard to believe,” he murmured.

“Well then, tomorrow why don’t you go down and see for yourself?” Fletcher suggested. “Ask someone to guide you.”

Ava wasn’t impressed. “More hiking?” she said distastefully.

Fawn giggled. “Yes, more,” she affirmed. Then she turned to her father-in-law. “But you won’t come with us, then? Show us around yourselves?”

Fletcher shook his head. “We prefer not to leave our mountain. We don’t know most of the people anyways, or many of the details about the place. Your best bet would be to ask Ulrich to show you around.”

“Not tomorrow, though,” Beregond spoke up. “The night is more than half gone now. Tomorrow we will rest and spend time here.” He smiled at is parents. “That was after all our main purpose in coming.”

“Then you all get yourselves ready for bed,” Amara told them, “and I’ll prepare the spare rooms. I’m afraid the beds aren’t very big, but they’re all we have.”

“Oh, don’t worry about small beds,” Beregond grinned, slipping both arms around his wife and pulling her close to him. “We’ll manage.”

Fawn giggled and slapped Beregond’s hands so that he let go of her. “Not if you insist on squeezing the air out of me,” she chided him.

Ava rolled her eyes and looked away, embarrassed by her parents’ behaviour.

Amara just laughed. “Give me five minutes, and your rooms will be ready,” she promised them.

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Post by Nara-pyon on Sun Aug 30, 2015 7:46 pm

The Grand Tour

Location: Haven, Borderlands
Year: 119 of the Fourth Age
Status: Mid-Summer

“Why did Nako tell us to take our bags?” Ava asked as she followed her parents down the mountain the second morning after their arrival.

They hadn’t brought all of their things with them, only a change of clothes each, but Amara would not let them out of the house without them.

“I have a feeling,” Beregond mused, “she knows better than we do just how long this is going to take.”

“Considering how many houses there are?” Fawn pointed out. “There has to be a least a hundred people to meet.”

“And with stories to tell and hear, it may take a while,” Beregond chuckled. “I can’t even imagine what might have been going on here …”

They had already decided to start with the people they knew – Ulrich and Ulani – and go from there. Amara had made sure to give them clear directions, since there were so many houses around now, and Beregond was certain that he would get the right one.

He didn’t get the chance.

Since the stream was the easiest way down the mountain, they followed it down, and when they reached the base of the mountain, there was a golden-haired woman getting water from the river not far from them. She spotted them the moment they were in her peripheral vision. For a moment Beregond was worried they would frighten her, but instead, she just smiled widely at them.

“Hello there!” she beamed. “Can I help you? Here for horses?”

“Visiting, actually,” Beregond replied, relieved that they wouldn’t have to defend themselves. “Looking for Ulrich and Ulani.”

The woman picked up the two buckets she had with her and her smile widened. “Then you’ve come to the right place. This way.”

They started after the woman, and they had only gone a few steps when she turned once more and added, “By the way, I’m Aliya.”

Beregond introduced himself and his family and concluded, “We’re from Chansond’eau, but we’ve come to visit my family, up on the mountain. My parents are Amara and Fletcher.”

“Oh!” Aliya exclaimed, her blue eyes shining brightly. “You must be the one who moved away just before I was born. Ulani and Ulrich are my parents – I guess that makes us cousins!”

Beregond laughed. “So that’s what Mother meant by Kara convincing your parents to start over. Well, Aliya, it’s good to meet you. And if you were born shortly after I left …” He paused, then grinned. “Family?”

Aliya giggled. “Husband, four children, five grandchildren, one great-grandchild.”

“What?” Beregond was shocked. “Wow …”

“Oh, it’s one adventure after another,” Aliya assured him. “Just can’t help but meet people around here.” She looked at Fawn and Ava and then back at Beregond once more. “And you? Just the three of you?”

“We also have a son, Tanil,” Fawn spoke up, smiling. “He’s among the soldiers watching over the dwarfs in the north, he’s been there about five years now. But yes, it is just the four of us.”

“Then I’m glad you came out here,” Aliya beamed. “Meet the rest of the family – or at least some of it, I’m afraid we’re spread pretty much everywhere now.”

Following the river, they soon reached some of the houses that the visitors had seen from up on the mountain.

“Here’s Mum and Ada’s place,” Aliya showed them, nodding at the house on their left as they left the river. “And I’m just right here. Come visit sometime before you go again, eh?”

“We certainly will,” Beregond promised with a grin. “Thank you.”

They had to go around the house to get to the front door, and Beregond and Fawn had to urge their daughter to keep up.

“At least we’re at a house now,” Ava muttered under her breath. “We’ll have a chance to sit for a while.”

“We’ll see about that,” Beregond chuckled as he knocked on the door. “There’s a lot to see.”

Come on in,” came a voice from inside the house; and Beregond opened the door obligingly. Ushering his wife and daughter ahead of him, he called out, “Nako-thêl? It’s me, Beregond. I’ve brought my family for a visit.”

“Beregond!” Ulani bounded out of the hallway, her dark eyes shining brightly with excitement. “Look at you! All grown up!” She laughed and hugged him tightly, then held him at arms’ length to examine him more closely. “Well. You’ve certainly grown. As I recall, I used to be taller than you.”

Both of them laughed, and then Beregond stepped aside and introduced his wife and daughter. They were invited to sit, and then Ulani went to find something for them to drink. They spoke for a while of things that had been happening in the past eighty years, and then Ulrich returned and there was another round of introductions. Ulani, Ulrich, Beregond and Fawn were all quite involved in the conversation, but Ava eventually tuned them out and curled up in her chair, gazing in boredom out the window. There were birds flying by the window, sometimes chasing each other, sometimes just singing. It wasn’t the same as back home, but it was still nice to watch.

“Ava?” Fawn snapped her fingers to get her daughter’s attention.

Ava jumped and blinked. “What?”

The others laughed at her. “Oh, Beregond, what kind of daughter have you raised?” Ulani teased him.

Beregond chuckled. “One who hates working and hates sitting around. Ava usually spends her time wandering around the city with her friends.”

“She’d probably like the ranch, then,” Ulrich grinned.

Ava looked around at them all. “A ranch?” she asked flatly. “What’s so interesting about that?”

“Ava,” Fawn murmured reproachfully.

Ulrich just laughed. “Well, I must admit, I don’t understand her lack of enthusiasm, but when you see it you may understand. We call it the ranch, but really, Haven has become … well, much more.”

He grinned. “Tell you what. Today, stay around here, check out the valley and all its inhabitants. Stay the night with us. Tomorrow I’ll take you all out to the ranch, and while you, Beregond, can catch up with dear old Elrohir, Ava can wander around all on her lonesome – as long as she can.”

“Elrohir?” Beregond repeated in surprise.

“What does that mean, as long as I can?” Ava challenged Ulrich. “Are you saying I’m going to get lost?”

Ulrich laughed again, clearly amused by both their reactions. “I don’t think I’m going to tell.”

“And for once, I agree,” Ulani smiled. “Usually I try to defend people from Ulrich’s humour but I think that this time, I’d like to see your reactions myself.”

“Well, that’s … enigmatic,” Fawn blinked.

Ulani winked at her. “Indulge us.”

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Post by Nara-pyon on Sun Sep 06, 2015 2:35 am

Touring The Ranch

Location: Haven, Borderlands
Year: 119 of the Fourth Age
Status: Mid-Summer

After spending an entire day in the valley, Beregond’s family had been exhausted. So many people to meet, so many stories to hear …

And the ranch promised to be even more overwhelming.

“So grumpy old Elrohir now lives here,” Beregond said to Ulrich as they walked, trying to get things straight. “And he’s married and has kids and grandkids, and he’s the one in charge of this entire operation – Light Elves and Dark Elves and-”

“-and elves of mixed blood,” Ulrich grinned. “Yes. And Serenity visits regularly and he is very happy to see her.”

“And did we mention that Serenity’s back with her husband reborn?” Ulani asked innocently.

Ava and Fawn didn’t get the significance of that, but Beregond did. He stared, then laughed. “Incredible.”

“As a matter of fact, his own son married a Light Elven woman, too,” Ulrich commented, looking at his wife.

“And they have one cute baby,” Ulani grinned.

Beregond’s laughter was enough to make Fawn giggle. Ava just rolled her eyes.

“Do I really need to meet these people?” she asked with a sigh. “I mean, I don’t know them, and you’re just going to talk about things that mean nothing to me …”

Beregond looked apologetically at Ulani and Ulrich.

“Well, you know,” Ulani grinned, coming to his rescue, “there’s a lot to see and it really is quite safe here. Why don’t you wander around on your own?”

“Really?” Ava perked up at the idea.

“Well, but-” Beregond protested.

“No, she said it’s fine,” Ava smiled at her father. “Nothing to worry about, very safe.”

“But we-”

“I know you came to visit but really, Ada, it’s not my thing,” she grinned. “You go ahead, I’ll find you eventually.”


“Thanks, Ada!” And without another word, Ava was off, skipping ahead, leaving the others behind. She passed a well between a massive house and an even more massive stable and came upon a large open yard. There were several children playing there, some kicking a ball around, others playing with toys, and there were a few adults wandering around as well. Some moved slowly as if meandering and simply passing time while others moved quickly as if with a destination in mind.

To her right, horses were being led from the stables, some saddled, some not, and as little as she knew about horses, she could tell that these ones were exceptional. They were unlike any horse she had seen before, and far more beautiful.

Around the yard, in a wide semicircle, were houses; not large ones, just big enough to fit a small family in each of them. Rather than having individual yards, their front doors all simply opened up to the large yard: clearly there was no question of property here.

There were some smells and sounds with which she was familiar, albeit loosely: the sound of the hammer and the metallic scent of a blacksmith; the thok, thok of an axe chopping wood; children singing childish rhymes; and one of her favourite scents: freshly baked goods.

“It almost feels like home,” she murmured softly to herself, for the first time smiling because she was glad to be where she was. She clasped her hands behind her back and began to wander.

It was rather a nice feeling, being out there on her own, away from her parents. She didn’t understand why they were so insistent that she stay with them: they were the ones who needed to catch up with the people here, not her. She had never met any of these people before – at least, not that she was aware of, though Ulani had mentioned that some of them occasionally visited the city for supplies or to visit family. And seriously, she was fifty one years old. She didn’t need to be babysat.

“Well, hello there.” She was greeted suddenly by a white-blond man with a grin.

She blinked at him, taking a brief moment to look at him before speaking. He was wearing a loose, short-sleeved shirt and pants, his leather boots soft and worn. On one side of his neck was a tattoo – a rose, black in colour (an odd colour for a rose, she thought).

“Hello,” she replied, mere seconds after he had first greeted her. “Who are you?”

The man bowed slightly at the waist and with his hands gestured towards himself. “Celeborn, at your service,” he introduced himself. Then, straightening once more, he asked, “And yourself? You are new here, are you not?”

Ava smiled and held out one hand. “Ava,” she said simply. “My parents are here for a visit, and I’m just exploring on my own.”

“Well, Ava,” said Celeborn warmly, giving her hand a firm shake, “welcome. Staying with Elrohir and Haradhel while you’re here?”

“My grandparents, actually.” She pointed at the mountain to the north where her grandparents’ cabin was located. “Amara and Fletcher.”

“Ah, yes,” the man smiled, looking towards the mountain. “I’d heard they had a son who had moved away. So few of us know anything about them, they tend to keep to themselves.”

“Keep to themselves?”

“Oh, they’ve never been down from the mountain since the ranch was started, or so the rumours go.” Celeborn chuckled.

Ava smiled. “Well, that explains why they gave us directions instead of leading us.” She rubbed her hands together briefly before gesturing towards the things around them. “So. Tell me about this place. How did it all get started? Why?”

Celeborn clasped his hands behind his back and started forward after making sure that Ava would be walking alongside him. “Well, it’s been a long time. I can’t say how it all came about, but a Southland prince was kidnaped by slavers and an entire smuggling ring was discovered, headed by the dwarfs in the north.”

“Oh, I know about that,” Ava nodded. “My brother is stationed up there.”

Celeborn chuckled softly. “Well then, that makes the explanation much simpler. Some people from far away were visiting here and learned about it and started the ranch – well, it was more like an army base at that point – in order to hunt down and stop the slavery. It took a long time, but we finally succeeded. During that time, of course, the ranch had continued to grow, and it really did become our homes. That’s why, even after there was no need for us to stay, we all did.”

He gestured towards the yard. “Many sent for their families. It really is our home now.”

Ava looked around thoughtfully. There certainly did seem to be quite a few people, and a good portion of them weren’t doing anything work-wise, at least not overtly. It did look more like a community than a workplace.

“They all seem so happy,” she commented.

“They are,” Celeborn agreed.

She kept looking around. “Any of these ones yours?”

Celeborn shook his head. “No, my wife died many years ago. My children were grown before I ever came here.”

He nodded towards the massive building on their right. “The stables. They’ve been rebuilt a few times now, not only because of age, but also because we keep having more and more horses. Elberon is the man in charge there. Watch out if you ever run into him, he will keep you talking for hours. There are a few others who help him out, but he does the brunt of the work.”

“How many horses are there?”

“Well, we started with about ten, and it’s been a lot of years … we’re probably close to fifty or so by now.” They paused near the open stable door. “Would you like to see them?”

Ava pursed her lips as she thought about it. Then she shook her head. “No, I think I’d like to hear a bit more first. What do you do with the horses now?”

“Lots,” Celeborn chuckled. “Breed, train, trade, sell, trade for rights to breed with them. Some are used in the fields, some for pulling wagons, most of them for riding. Hunting. And of course, some are just plain runners. Speed is something a lot of people value in a horse.”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever ridden,” Ava mused, pursing her lips.

“Oh, you poor girl,” her guide laughed. “Rest assured, that will not be the case when you leave.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“Here,” Celeborn went on, gesturing towards the houses they were now passing as they circled the yard in a counter-clockwise direction, “are the houses where the workers all live.”

Ava was silent for a long moment as her eyes scanned the houses. She couldn’t see them all: they were in rows behind each other; but there had to be at least thirty or forty of them. These were all homes of people who lived and worked here … there were so many …

“It’s like a town,” she murmured.

Celeborn chuckled again. “That is exactly what it is, though without the commerce. While these are all houses where people live, just behind them – well, the ones over there” –he pointed to the houses towards the south, opposite the stables across the yard- “are the trades. Blacksmith. Tanner. Tailors. Fletcher and bowyer. And more, of course, but you get the idea.”

Ava paused and looked at him. “And behind the houses here?” she asked, gesturing over her shoulder.

“Fields.” Celeborn started them going again. “All kinds of crops. Corn. Wheat. Beans. Potatoes. Fruits and vegetables. Food for us, food for the animals. Hay and oats and alfalfa – everything we need.” With a smile, he added, “Really the only thing we have to trade for is salt and sugar. Back in the valley, we’ve even built a mill so that we can make our own flour.”

Ava was impressed. “And you do all of this without money.”

She was not prepared for the fit of laughter that burst from the man walking next to her. He laughed so hard that his shoulders shook almost violently.

“Oh, we have money!” he chortled. “More of it than we know what to do with. We just don’t have much use for it, which believe it or not is frustrating. It takes up quite a bit of space and serves no real purpose aside from funding some wonderfully exorbitant trips to various cities – or countries, for those with family in other places.”

He shrugged. “We survive here by working and living together – we all help each other out with whatever we need. Food. Clothes. Weapons. Even those with more advanced knowledge in certain areas step in to educate the children of those who might not have that same knowledge. There is no exchange of money, no currency, no keeping track of who owes how much to whom. We live as a single family, a single entity.”

It certainly gave Ava quite a bit to think about.

“I’d never thought about it like that before,” she murmured. “Back in the city, everything is about money. I mean, there are people who trade services for services, but I don’t think it’s as many as used to, and money is by far the more popular transaction.”

“Well, it is a city,” Celeborn chuckled. “Makes sense to me.”

Having passed the houses, they came upon a massive house – large enough to cover the same space as anywhere between four and eight of the rest of the houses. It was the house that her parents had been heading towards when they’d arrived with Ulrich and Ulani.

“Ranch house,” her guide told her. “Home of many people. Lord Elrohir and Lady Haradhel, for two, and their family.”

“Lord and Lady?”

He chuckled again. “Prince and Princess, to be more correct. Great-grandson of Queen Atalya of the Southland. Overseers of the ranch, originally, but now … well, still overseers, but no longer under the instruction of anyone else. Officially in charge.”

Ava nodded thoughtfully and eyed the house. “Maybe I should meet them after all,” she murmured.

Celeborn arched one eyebrow. “You think?”

Ava had the grace to blush, and Celeborn chuckled. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.” He took her arm and led her towards the house.

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Post by Nara-pyon on Tue Sep 15, 2015 11:50 pm


Location: Haven, Borderlands
Year: 119 of the Fourth Age
Status: Mid-Summer

Celeborn brought Ava to the enormous ranch house and led her inside without knocking. She didn’t understand why until she saw the way the foyer was set up, with five doors: four leading to different wings of the house, and one leading to an enormous glassed-in yard. He was about to knock on one of the doors when it opened beneath his fist and they were met by Ava’s parents.

“Oh, there you are,” Beregond grinned at his daughter. “Decided to come in after all, did you? Well, we’re just on our way out – Elrohir’s going to show us around, introduce us to people.”

Ava stepped back to make room for her parents, and after they joined her in the foyer, two others came out as well: both Dark Elves, both incredibly tall, the man was muscular and looked very strong while the woman appeared rather fine, not quite cut out for ranch life.

“Ava, this is Elrohir and Haradhel,” her mother introduced the two. “They run the ranch and all of its operations.” Then, turning towards the two, she added, “And this is our daughter, Ava.”

Ava wasn’t one for formalities, but she knew how she was supposed to act around royalty. She had grown up in Chansond’eau, the home of the Westland royal family, after all. She took a half-step back and dropped into a curtsey.

“Whoa there,” Haradhel laughed, putting one hand on Ava’s shoulder to stop her. “No one’s done that since we left the Southland, and we don’t expect it.”

Ava blinked. “But Celeborn said-”

Haradhel chuckled. “Forget it. Would you like to join us? Your parents don’t know anyone else here, so we’re going to go meet them all.”

“I’ll come,” Ava agreed, nodding eagerly.

Beregond was surprised. “Really?” She hadn’t wanted to come with them earlier, what had changed?

Ava blushed and turned towards the door again. “I guess the ranch is a bit more interesting than I first thought it was,” she admitted, downplaying her interest. To herself, however, she had to admit that having seen that it was more than just horses – which had never really interested her - and that in fact it was rather more like a city of its own, even a small one, made her feel more at home than she had felt since leaving Chansond’eau. And just as back home she had enjoyed talking with people, she was curious to meet the people who had chosen to make this out-of-the-way place their home.

Unlike Celeborn, Elrohir and Haradhel led the group clockwise around the ranch, which meant that they first passed through the houses where the craftsmen were and where the people lived. They didn’t stop to talk to everyone, but made introductions, were introduced, and moved on. A few times, they stopped to chat. Some of the people had interesting stories to tell, and others had accents so strong that they were difficult to understand. There was one who couldn’t speak at all – the result of torture during the second War of the Races. Some were working; others were off shift and simply enjoying themselves or spending time with their families.

It interested Ava that most of the men – and several of the women – introduced themselves or were introduced as, fighters: hired to defend the ranch, or married to those who were. Everyone had a weapon on them, unless they were very young. It really made Ava self-conscious. She wasn’t sure she could wield a weapon to save her life, but these kids were maybe ten years old and carrying knives like they knew how to use them.

Another thing they had in common was that they all had a story to tell: whether they had been part of the ranch since the beginning, when they had been fighting to stop the slavery, or if they were newer and had friends or relatives whose children had been rescued, each one of them had come here knowing the history and purpose of the place.

“Now, we’ve left the stables themselves for last,” Elrohir cautioned them, “because our groom is a bit … different from the rest of our hands.”

“Different?” Beregond questioned. “Different how?”

“Well, he’s very friendly,” Haradhel grinned, her eyes bright with amusement.

“Perhaps too much so,” Elrohir laughed. “He’s much like everyone else that way, and like the others, he’ll have his own stories to tell.”

“The difference is,” Haradhel concluded, “he doesn’t know when to stop talking.”

“Or asking questions,” Elrohir added.

“So feel free to interrupt him if you feel it’s necessary,” Haradhel grinned at the others. “Sometimes it’s the only way you’ll ever get a word in.”

Beregond was amused, to say the least. “I’ll bear that in mind,” he promised.

The groom was a Westlander, not particularly tall, but very muscular. One of the first things Ava noticed about him was that he was missing a few fingers from one hand. Immediately, she wondered what had happened to him. A fight, perhaps?

“Elberon,” Elrohir called out to the man as the five of them approached. “Visitors. Amara and Fletcher’s son, and his family.”

Elberon was in the process of mucking out a stall, and he kept working while he spoke. “Oh! From Amara and Fletcher, eh? It’s been a long time! We’ve been here what, closer to a century than a half of one, and yet no one has-”

He cut himself off as he turned around and took in the sight of the visitors. Cool, gray-blue eyes caught Ava’s and stared silently. His mouth, moving so quickly before, was slack and motionless.

Elrohir and Haradhel glanced at each other, and had the others been paying attention to them, they would have seen their looks of surprise. As it was, they were wondering why their guides had told them the man was an incessant talker when he wasn’t saying a word.

“Elberon,” said Elrohir, taking advantage of the moment, “this is Beregond, his wife Fawn, and their daughter, Ava.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Elberon,” Beregond said, stepping forward and offering a hand as he had done with everyone else they had met.

Elberon didn’t seem to hear him. He was still staring at Ava, transfixed.

Had Ava been much younger, Beregond would have felt rather protective, he thought, but at the moment, he was just plain amused. He lowered his hand and looked at Ava, wondering what she was making of this.

To be honest, she wasn’t quite sure. She’d had her share of attention in Chansond’eau, sure, but no one had ever stared at her as openly as Elberon was doing. It was really the first time she found herself unable to just ignore it – it didn’t help that this was supposed to be the time where typically they would exchange meaningless pleasantries and then make small talk or share histories.

“Ava,” she said at last, holding out a hand to the man, just as her father had done. “Nice to meet you, Elberon.”

Maybe he would respond if she was the one speaking to him. She had no idea.

Sure enough, he reached for her hand, but instead of shaking it, as she had expected him to do, he held it in his own and bowed low over it. “It is an honour,” he murmured; and then he pressed his lips lightly to the back of her hand.

Ava blushed hotly, taken completely by surprise. This was certainly a treatment she had never experienced before. “Ah …”

Fawn giggled. Elrohir and Haradhel hid their smiles behind their hands. Beregond just grinned at his daughter and watched to see what she would do.

Ava of course had no idea what to do. Her face burning with embarrassment, she mumbled an incoherent, “Thanks,” then cleared her throat and took her hand back as gently as she was able but as quickly as she dared.

Elrohir was chuckling. “Elberon has been with us since the beginning,” he explained. “Since before Haradhel and I came, actually. By the time we arrived, the ranch was already running a bit. But with all the people we’ve had come through here, no one has come close to doing this job as well as Elberon.”

His eyes still on Ava, Elberon smiled modestly. “Well, I do enjoy it,” he murmured. He cocked his head curiously and spoke directly to Ava, ignoring the others. “Have you ever spent time around horses, Ava?”

Ava shook her head, still unsure of what to say. What could she say? “Um … I guess you’ve spent a lot of time with them,” she started; but then she stopped, feeling stupid. She paused, thinking, then tried again. “I guess … you would know an awful lot about them, then …”

Elberon’s smile grew wider. “Well, you see …”

He began to explain how he had gotten the job on the ranch. As he spoke, Elrohir and Haradhel motioned for Beregond and Fawn to follow them out of the stable again. It wasn’t as if Elberon noticed. For the first time since they had met him, he wasn’t interested in going on about nonsense, or asking enough questions of the visitors to make them want to run for cover. They felt sorry for Ava, in a way, but at the same time they were glad to be able to escape the man.

The only thing that amused them more was the fact that they didn’t hear from Ava again that day until night was falling – and when she came into the ranch house for dinner, there was quite the smile on her face.

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